Some people make the best of a bad situation when they are fired, while others seem to disappear without a trace. And then there's Joseph Barbera. After losing his job 27 years ago, Barbera changed the course of animation history.
For 20 years, he and partner William Hanna created and produced "Tom and Jerry," the popular cat-and-mouse theatrical cartoon series distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. The cartoons won seven Oscars for the partners before MGM abruptly terminated the series in 1957.
"One minute you're on top of the world with Oscars and everything, and all of a sudden you're out of work," Barbera recalled. "I had two kids playing Little League ball, and they're running around happy and laughing, and I'm sitting there looking at them and saying, 'You poor dumb kids, you're gonna be starving next week.' "
But the Barbera kids never did starve. Instead, a few months after Hanna and Barbera were bounced from MGM, the two men invented "limited animation," the low-cost cartoon process that revolutionized Saturday morning television and continues to change the animation industry today.
At MGM, Hanna and Barbera had done full-scale animation in the style pioneered by Walt Disney, a process that involved many thousands of drawings for the detail required of each five-minute cartoon. "It was one of the things we all picked up from Walt, who loved all that beautiful animating of flowers and leaves and things like that," Barbera said. He and Hanna turned out five or six of the cartoons a year, on budgets usually ranging from $45,000 to $65,000 for each production.
But, once the two men were out of MGM, the best offer they could get was a contract to do a five-minute cartoon for $2,700. To accomplish that, the partners invented the first limited animation cartoon using 800 or 900 drawings, instead of the usual 26,000, Barbera recalled.
Whereas full animation is an art form involving more expense than the creation of a live-action movie, limited animation is effective with children and much cheaper to produce.
Admitting that the difference between the two is like "the difference between making Rolls-Royces and Ford Tempos," Barbera said, "It's purely a matter of money, and you either stay in the business or you don't."
Today, Hollywood-based Hanna-Barbera Productions, the company launched by the partners a few months after their firing at MGM, bills itself as "the largest producer of animated entertainment in the world." With more than 250 TV series produced so far, it is the home of such popular characters as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and the Flintstones.
The company was founded on a $4,000 investment and sold 10 years later, in 1967, to Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting Co. for $12.5 million under an arrangement that provides for Hanna and Barbera to continue operating the company. Barbera remains president.
To outsiders, the job of a Saturday morning cartoon mogul may seem like easy work, but it's really a business of battles all day long, according to Barbera.
Those battles have left remarkably few scars, however. At 74, Barbera appears much younger, and he continues to be the leading creative mind at Hanna-Barbera, where he has been responsible for most of the company's cartoon characters. Partner William Hanna, also 74, is executive vice president of the firm and handles the production end.
"I'm still involved with plotting or kicking off ideas, which is the part I like," Barbera said. "But I'm trying to get out of doing all the work . . . getting involved so much in every story."
Although Hanna-Barbera still dominates Saturday morning network TV programming, it has faced unusually tough competition lately. For example, DIC Enterprises, the U.S. subsidiary of a French firm, has sold seven network TV series since the company opened in Studio City in 1982. And in the non-network TV industry, Filmation's "He Man and the Masters of the Universe" has replaced reruns of Hanna-Barbera's "Scooby Doo" as the No. 1 children's show in syndication.
Barbera claims that, even at the networks, his company has no sales advantage over the newcomers despite Hanna-Barbera's tradition of longevity and dominance. ("Scooby Doo," on ABC, is now in its 15th year, making it the longest-running network series of its kind, and "The Smurfs," on NBC, is now in its fourth season.)
Nonetheless, Barbera said, "every year, all studios, new and old, start from scratch (in their relationship with network officials)." Then, "every two years there's a change of faces at the networks so all that pleading and begging and kneeling and kissing rings is gone, and you've got to start all over again because here's a new face," he said.
Barbera's latest self-proclaimed adversary is Walt Disney Productions, a newcomer to the Saturday morning cartoon field. Disney has sold two animated series to begin on the networks next fall, and new Disney Chairman Michael Eisner has vowed that "the days when Hanna-Barbera has 90% of Saturday morning television will soon be over."
Market 'Isn't That Easy'
But if that challenge worries Barbera, he doesn't show it. Instead, he speculated on the problems that Disney could encounter. "If you sell one show as a new company, you're in the red, deep in the red," he said. "If you sell two shows, you still haven't broken even, and if a show should only run one year, you never recover that money."
Saying he considers Eisner "a very good friend," Barbera said: "This is no put-down, but I think he (Eisner) figured, 'This is just an easy market and we're Disney, why not get into it. . . . It's that simple, right?' And it isn't that easy a market."
For one thing, Barbera said, "any new company that opens up finds out that there isn't that much (animation) talent, so you have to go abroad to find studios that will do some of the work for you. Suddenly you're traveling around the world trying to make deals and you run into all kinds of problems, like the film arrives and it isn't right."
Hanna-Barbera has its overseas animation work done at studios in Australia and Taipei, once the characters, the look of a show and the key animated drawings have been designed by animation staffers here. "We're partners with people in both (overseas) studios," Barbera said, because "there's no way it will ever work in those countries unless you are partners with the people. You find that out. Then everything works better. They don't resent the invaders."
Hanna-Barbera itself is at least partly responsible for a "lack of top (animation) talent" in this country, according to Bud Hester, business representative of the Screen Cartoonists Local 839. The company's limited animation revolution created an economy wave that has sent more and more of the U.S. animation business overseas to be carried out by cheaper foreign labor, Hester noted. Even Disney has said it will have its new Saturday morning TV series completed by studios in Korea and Japan.
"If Hanna-Barbera had not started it (overseas production), we could have trained and advanced people here," Hester said. "I think even Hanna-Barbara is sorry sometimes."
But Barbera is not sorry. "People seem to think that we deliberately are trying to crucify a business that we've been raised in," he said. "We can do the finest animation in the world right here in this studio, but no one will put up the money for it, and it will not make that much difference, not for Saturday morning."
Bears, Swords, Sorcery
The idea for Barbera's latest creation, a group of tiny bears called "Paw Paws," struck him in the sophisticated environment of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I was sitting there talking and I had one of the little cocktail napkins, so I began drawing these little characters across the bottom. I turned (to his companions) and said, 'Do you think this would make a show?' and they said, 'That's cute.' "
More than $3 million of Hanna-Barbera's money is being spent to ensure that the "Paw Paws" are more than cute. "The Paw Paws" and two other half-hour shows--"The Funtastic Treasure Hunt," featuring Yogi Bear with old and new characters, and a sword-and-sorcery cartoon called "Galtar"--make up a new 90-minute series called "The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera," which is expected to carve out fresh territory for the company.
Funded for the syndicated market at a cost of more than $10 million for the first 17 episodes, "Funtastic" is intended for consumption on Sunday mornings.
New Sunday Show
Cartoons have aired Sunday mornings on a local basis on some stations, but Hanna-Barbera's package is the first nationwide attempt to create a market with Sunday morning children's programming.
The Sunday show and two other new series--all of which are scheduled to air beginning in September--represent the company's entry into producing first-run cartoons for syndication, a market that is booming now, thanks in part to the success of "He Man," which is based on the Mattel toy line.
"There's no question that the networks are still there and they're very, very important, but for the future, you have to be looking for the other markets," Barbera said. In his case, that includes the videocassette recorder market. In the future, he said, Hanna-Barbera will produce some programming directly for cassettes, bypassing TV altogether.
Like "He Man," two of Hanna-Barbera's new series are "strip" shows, meaning that they will be broadcast daily on weekdays with an initial package of 65 episodes each. "Challenge of the GoBots" is based on the popular robot toys from Tonka Corp., and the other series is about a Space Age family, "The Jetsons," which first debuted on TV in 1961. The original 24 episodes will be combined with new shows for the syndicated package.
Unlike adult shows, kids' cartoon series seem to have an almost limitless rerun life. Not surprisingly, Hanna-Barbera earns the bulk of its income from its old series. Almost every series or special ever made by the company is still in syndication somewhere in the United States or in 80 other countries. For example, episodes of "The Flintstones," a series that will be 25 years old this year, can reach more than 80% of U.S. households five days a week, according to a Taft spokesman.
'Another Whole Job'
Some of the consumer goods licensed to use Hanna-Barbera's characters seem to have been around forever as well. Among the 40 companies still making Flintstones products are Miles Laboratories, with Flintstones Vitamins, and General Foods, with Pebbles (the Flintstones' baby) cereal.
The licensing of Hanna-Barbera characters, an enterprise that involves more than 1,500 manufacturers and about 4,500 products, is the largest merchandising operation of its kind in the world, according to Taft's merchandising group, which handles the licensing.
"Anything about deals I make a studied effort to stay the hell out of, because that's another whole job," Barbera said.
But he does know the value of cartoon reruns. They are the reason he and Hanna lost those MGM jobs years ago. "The giant brains (at MGM) found out they could make almost 90% of the income they earned from the new Tom and Jerrys just by re-releasing the old ones. So they began to reissue and they're still doing it, " Barbera said.
Because Hanna and Barbera were MGM animation staffers when they created "Tom and Jerry," the studio wound up with all the rights to the series, and Hanna and Barbera wound up with nothing, other than their seven Oscars. To make matters worse, Barbera was once told by an MGM official that the "Tom and Jerry" reruns earned $26 million in one year alone, he said. "They make a fortune every year and they don't even send us a coupon."
But, he said, "I will never look back at anything." Besides, now Barbera and partner have seven Emmys, earned by Hanna-Barbera, to go with their Oscars.